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United Way Calls Changes 'New Focus,' Scene Says Group Has Big Problems

United Way of Greater Cleveland says changes to the way it supports local charities will sharpen its focus on reducing poverty in Northeast Ohio. Cleveland Scene reporter Sam Allard says the claims of more focus are a distraction from reduced funding and serious mismanagement within the organization. [Annie Wu / ideastream]
United Way of Greater Cleveland offices on Euclid Avenue in Playhouse Square

United Way of Greater Cleveland says it is sharpening its focus by targeting only a small group of organizations for funding in an effort to reduce poverty. But Cleveland Scene reporter Sam Allard says the organization is trying to sugarcoat what he is calling an overall reduction in funding for charities.

His reporting points to  mismanagement, disillusioned employees and questionable spending on a new headquarters.

The new Community Hub for Basic Needs, is described in a United Way press release as "the final step in the organization's three-year strategic plan to maximize United Way's impact within the community by targeting specific, measurable goals and outcomes to address the city's most challenging issues."

"Cleveland is one of the most generous philanthropic communities in the nation, yet we are the worst in the country when it comes to childhood poverty," said Augie Napoli, President and CEO of United Way of Greater Cleveland on ideastream’s The  Sound of Ideas. "We are second worst when it comes to working-age adults and third in the nation in senior poverty. What we are doing is not enough. United Way's long-standing practice of funding good ideas and intentions clearly is not working – we must do better for our city's citizens, and we will work with a concentrated group of partners to tackle this issue head on."

There are "4,500 agencies that are providing about 25-, 26,000 programs every year and these statistics don't lie, this data doesn't lie," Napoli said in the previously recorded interview. 

Organizations that say they help combat issues at the root of poverty – ranging from structural racism to quality educations to housing stability – but don't have supporting data are likely to be cut out of funding, partly because of changing attitudes among new donors, Napoli said.

"They're not less charitable than your father or your grandfather or grandmother were," Napoli said. "They maybe accepted it on face value. We're just more discerning. This generation and those to come are more discerning about it."

Allard said his reporting for Scene, including conversations with current and former United Way employees, indicates the stated reason for the reshaping of United Way donations is a misrepresentation.

"This is a funding reduction," Allard told The Sound of Ideas Thursday. "This is a significant reduction in funds to area non-profits. We're talking at least $3 million in the next year and a half and who knows how much after that. But they're portraying the story as just an ongoing strategic move.

"And you can see the trend, I mean it's gone down significantly from $40 million in 2015 to $31 million in 2017, the most recent year available," Allard said. "That's total contributions."

In its release, United Way said it invested $33.2 million in the community in 2019.

"This included: 2-1-1 HelpLink and other direct services, the Impact Institute, federated and regional partners, agency grants specified by donors and agency grants determined by United Way’s RFP funding process," the release states. "Only the last category of agency grants determined by United Way’s RFP process, which totaled $6.5 million in fiscal year 2019, will see change. For this category, the organization will implement a new funding process focused on specific goals."

Allard did not dispute United Way’s stated desire for more focused giving, but said the charity’s pitch on what the end result will look like for Northeast Ohio is misleading.

"It's a laser focus, it's a more targeted investment and that's certainly the case," Allard said. "But the net result is that there are fewer agencies getting funding. I mean, it may be the case that some of the ones that they fund will be more effective, but the net result is just fewer dollars in the community for precisely the services they claim to support."

Allard also took issue with United Way's claim that it spent $1.9 million in 2019 on the Impact Institute. 

"What are the results?" Allard said. "What has this think tank discovered? What have they found out about poverty? Who can say?"

In this transition, the United Way plans to honor its grants to agencies through the end of this request for proposal period, July 1.  

"In addition, the organization will provide transitional funding for these current agency partners for a 15-month period, from July 1, 2020 – October 1, 2021," the release states. "United Way will also continue its investments in the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition and with partners at Legal Aid on Right to Counsel, which will both have significant, long-term impact on Clevelanders who live in the city’s deepest poverty."

The Sound of Ideas invited United Way to respond to Allard's report, but a spokesperson declined.

"United Way spokesperson Katie Connell, when I asked for her response to the story yesterday, said via email of Allard: 'Obviously he has his own angle and agenda with regard to covering our transformation,’" said The Sound of Ideas host Mike McIntyre. "I asked if anyone from United Way would like to join this part of the conversation. She declined, writing 'you have the truth from Nancy and Augie about the three year plan and this final phase Augie was brought on board to navigate.'"

United Way says it will provide its next report on the framework of the Community Hub for Basic Needs at its annual meeting on Sept. 10.

Glenn Forbes is supervising producer of newscasts at Ideastream Public Media.